Well that was ugly and unsettling. J. Bruce Harreld’s “town hall meeting” dramatized what happens when you carry out a sham presidential search, install a puppet president, promise an open forum, replace it with a “town hall meeting,” and release a fusillade of PowerPoint slides documenting the UI’s skid down the rankings. Let’s dispel once and for all with this fiction that J. Bruce Harreld is a leadership expert. As I looked around the auditorium full of University of Iowans cleft in two by the sordid events of the last six months, some of them happy to move on, some of them hell-bent on unseating Harreld, none of them looked happy to be going where Harreld led. I long ago pitched my tent with the resisters, but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for all of us.
By chance the room in which we gathered was the same large meeting room in which, three weeks before, my neighbors had gathered for the Democratic party caucus. Back then, young Clinton acolytes passed out mints at the door as the room filled up with Sanders supporters, their numbers swelling to overflow. Things got tense for a moment when the Martin O’Malley supporters failed to reach the number they needed in order to be viable, and, as the Martins disbanded, the Hillarys and the Bernies pounced on undecided stragglers. But all of us joined in singing the Hawkeye fight song while the precinct captain counted heads, and when the captain asked if it was OK for Dave Moore to sing a Bernie anthem, the Hillary supporters acceded to this request. It was Dave Moore! We were Iowans!
Now the atmosphere was considerably more tense than it had been on caucus night. In the front of the room, all the presidents’ men and one woman milled around the dais. I envied the cheery demeanor of the Faculty Senate President, flag bearer for the “let bygones be bygones” contingent, as she buzzed around the front of the room, checking her microphone. Another Harreld pal, the recently appointed UI vice president of external relations, a man who had distinguished himself by doling out no-bid contracts to political cronies, seemed less sanguine. He looked like a man who, when things started flying, would be ready to duck.
“If we had an accurate morale study, I think it is declining,” Harreld said, mid-way through his opening comments, with no apparent sense of irony. “What am I going to do?” he asked. “Resign!” yelled a woman in the front row who was holding a “To hell with Harreld sign.” In the row just ahead of mine, a woman with short gray hair, who did not seem like someone prone to yelling in public, loudly demanded that the first woman be quiet, but to no avail. Every time the first woman piped up, she elicited sympathy for Harreld; Iowans hate rudeness. The audience members found it easier to be incensed by a discourteous woman than by an impostor man.
The most telling part of the evening involved a peanut butter metaphor. Harreld has had trouble with metaphors in the past, but he has not yet learned to rein in his figures of speech. Over the course of the evening he would more than once declare himself devoted to “shared governance on steroids,” presumably without considering the side effects of steroid usage: aggressive behavior, rage, violence. At one point, while gesturing toward a PowerPoint slide that visualized resource allocation as a mysterious gray square, Harreld recalled a past encounter with a man who asked, “Have you thought about the peanut butter yet?” Harreld went on to assert that a number of important pieces of our institution were being squeezed fiscally, and then clarified that the peanut butter stood for limited resources. “This individual was poking at this question—how are you allocating resources?” The peanut butter might be getting spread too evenly, Harreld said. He returned to the sandwich spread analogy later in the evening after the Chair of the Economics department noted that when Harreld implied that “things are pretty bad, we need to start cutting stuff,” it did not seem like the inspiring message of an expert in leadership. “I’m not talking about cutting,” Harreld insisted. “Are we going to keep spreading the butter evenly over everything? . . . I personally don’t think that will add to excellence. . . . I’d rather see a few areas that we are going to do doggone well.” As the evening wound down, he returned once more to his graphs and pie charts. “Does anyone want to talk about ranking?” he asked, the data his life raft.
“Winners become losers very quickly,” Harreld recently opined during a “change management” class, or so one of the students in this class tweeted. Up until the town hall meeting, I’d taught at the University of Iowa for a long time without worrying about becoming a loser, nor had I ever thought of my co-workers or students as factors in a scarcity equation. It’s not that the peanut butter has always been spread equitably at the University of Iowa, but former UI presidents didn’t view butter redistribution as a benchmark of their effectiveness. I recalled those leaders fondly as I filed out of the building.